City of Reno Appeals Neon Line Decision
November 6, 2023

Council Wants a Limited Appeal

The Reno City Council agreed October 25 to appeal a recent court decision in Scenic Nevada’s lawsuit affecting the Neon Line District with some council members asking the city attorney’s office to narrowly limit the appeal to one legal issue.

In the decision by District Court Judge Connie Steinheimer the city was prohibited from granting building permits for two of the three signs proposed in the development agreement between the city and developer entities controlled by casino owner Jeff Jacobs.

The 5-1 vote to appeal came after a wide-ranging discussion about the Neon Line District, signs and branding areas of the city. Council Member Meghan Ebert opposed, saying the city does not need to appeal and Jacobs should fight his own legal battles.

Scenic Nevada sued both the city and the Jacobs entities included in the development agreement.  Jacobs filed its Notice of Appeal October 24, the day before the council’s discussion.

Scenic Nevada said in its lawsuit that the signs, as proposed, would have violated either the ban on new billboard construction in the city sign code as well as other sign regulations. The city tried to circumvent the ban and sign code restrictions by calling the three signs  “area identification signs”, which the city claimed were not regulated.

Appeal Issues To Be Decided Behind Closed Doors

Assistant City Attorney Jasmine Mehta took issue with three of the Judge’s findings and wanted to appeal those to the Nevada Supreme Court – whether Scenic Nevada has standing to sue, whether two of the three signs were prohibited because they violated the people’s billboard ban and city sign codes and whether the city could not deviate from regular city codes when adopting a development agreement.

With a deadline to appeal of November 9th, Assistant City Attorney Jonathan Shipman told the council that his office needed a vote on whether to appeal, adding that the grounds for the appeal could be decided in a closed-door session with council members later.

To us, trying to overturn the judge’s decision on Scenic Nevada’s standing (right to sue) and the giant signs was another example of city efforts during the last 20 years to thwart the people’s vote to ban new billboards in Reno. We reminded the council that the city signed a Settlement Agreement to enforce the people’s vote in 2017 and that Settlement agreement is what gives us the right to sue when the city approves new billboards.

Council Members Agree With Judge On Signs And Standing

Council Member Naomi Duerr said she would only support an appeal if it was limited solely to the third issue: whether the city can deviate from city codes in development agreements.  She said that the court’s ruling strikes at the city’s authority and ability to act when it comes to developments.

“If you can narrowly construe your appeal that’s what I would support,” she said. “I would not support a conversation about the signs whether they can, can’t, what they look like, what they say. I would not support a challenge whatsoever to Scenic Nevada’s standing (to sue).”

Both Council Member Miguel Martinez and Devon Reese generally agreed with Ms. Duerr about what to appeal, saying that state law allows the city to deviate from city code in a development agreement and it was necessary to preserve that “tool” when reviewing developments.

“I think Scenic Nevada makes a good argument about why they have standing,” Reese said. “As to the signs, I’m somewhat in Ms. Duerr’s camp. I don’t want us to be fighting about the signs in the Supreme Court…that third issue is concerning to me as a lawyer. This question of whether the city can deviate from code in a development agreement…That is the legal issue worth pursuing.”

In addition to Scenic Nevada, 24 community members called and emailed the council to voice concerns about the proposed appeal. In a nod to those concerns, Council Member Matinez said the council was listening.

“The council has done a good job hearing our constituents and making sure that we are giving some direction to our attorney’s office and limiting some of the things we seek to appeal in this process and making sure you all know the concern is with the third part that came out of the court.” he said.

Branding and the Neon Line District

Mayor Hillary Schieve began the discussion saying she didn’t believe the proposed signs were billboards but place making identification signs for branding a district. Jacobs carved the area around west Fourth Street from West Street to Keystone Avenue and named it the Neon Line District. Apparently, Jacobs had the name trademarked in 2018 without the council’s knowledge.

“I think in my mind (the signs) are not billboards,” Mayor Schieve said. “It’s place making identification… we (business owners) branded Midtown as Midtown. I see it no differently. It’s the same way when it comes to the Neon Line District. It’s just one of those things that you brand.”

Council Member Ebert had a different point of view. She searched the Neon Line District online during the discussion and found that the top results all yielded Jacobs Entertainment.

“Everything is pretty clear that this is a developer driven, private thing,” she said. “So, I don’t think it’s really the city of Reno’s place to get involved in this and to join in an appeal. If this was truly a city of Reno identifying area, the first four search results wouldn’t come up as Jacobs Entertainment. Midtown, when I look it up, doesn’t come back to a specific business. It comes up with different restaurants and shops downtown. No one has trademarked Midtown. It is truly an area within Reno. But from everything I’m looking at Neon Line is Jacobs so let them handle their own lawsuit.”

It could take several months, most probably when the city and the Jacobs entities file briefs with the Supreme Court before we learn for certain what issues will be included in the appeal. Thanks to all who wrote or called the council.  We’ll keep you posted.